The modesty imbroglio – an embarrassment to UD

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Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor

One gets an odd feeling, reading online comments by friends and colleagues that decry the opinions and, alas, the character of one of the first friends you made at college. It’s not that people should never express their disagreements heartily, far from it; it’s only that vituperation loses much of its luster when it’s directed at someone you know to be a thoughtful and interesting and good person.

But then again, thoughtful, interesting, and good people can do and say thoughtless, boring and bad things, so something more substantial needs to be said in defense of the writer whose article inflamed an imbroglio that, in its intensity, dwarfed the controversies over the senior gift and the proposed fraternity. What needs to be added, then, is this: that so very many of the critics of Anna Kaladish’s piece violently misread it, attacking an argument that wasn’t there and ignoring the one that was; and that many of these same people had the gall to condemn what 50 years ago would have been the unquestioned consensus of the Catholic faithful as wicked moralizing, all while engaging in real, presumptuous moralizing of their own. With due respect to friends of mine whose comments I have in mind, the response to Miss Kaladish’s piece was, by and large, beneath the dignity of a university that is supposed to be a home for independent thinkers.

The very title of the offending work, “Collective amnesia amongst the female UD populace,” should have been a tip-off that what was to come was not going to be wholly serious. Indeed, the piece begins by absurdly suggesting that the class of 2013 give as its parting gift “a stand on the Mall with all shapes and varieties of long skirts to be doled out to needy passersby,” and it ends by entreating readers to ask themselves before leaving their room each morning, “‘Did I remember to put on pants today?’”

So the piece is bookended by obvious humor. In between were several other jokes (“What our newspaper needs is Mall à la Modesty!”) and instances of comical hyperbole (leggings are “obscene” and an “atrocity”); no fewer than three exclamation points that reflect and effect a light tone; and the confession by the author that what she had written was a “rambling tirade” that a reader needs patience to get all the way through.

People, this girl was not writing with the severity of a 19th-century pope, let alone with the worldview of an Iranian ayatollah. Take a chill pill; she doesn’t hate you if you wear leggings.

I should acknowledge an objection that will be raised in response to this recapitulation: that maybe the piece came off as funny to those of us who know Miss Kaladish, but that those who do not know her could not have been expected to perceive her gay tone so readily. This is a fair protest. We who can read her writing with her inimitable inflection in our ears and her silly gestures in our mind’s eye were not going to mistake a clause like “harried young ladies dashing about in pursuit of knowledge” as pretentious – but I cannot get upset with someone who, not knowing her, did find it haughty. I can only assure this person that the author is not that, and ask that the clause be taken in the context of an article permeated by a light spirit.

What was Miss Kaladish arguing, when we leave aside the jokes and the wordplay? She claimed that there are certain unseemly fashion trends that some women at the University of Dallas have adopted. Her two specific targets, leggings and short shorts, are not modest and wholesome, she believes, and UD women ought to reject them, “for the sake of their beauty and the benefit of everyone who has to look at them.” The author’s allegiance, clearly, lay with the good, the true and the beautiful, which are the most Christian of things.

Why does she object to women wearing leggings as pants? It is because “no mature and self-respecting individual wishes to see so distinctly the contours of [one’s] derrière.” In other words, when a woman wears leggings with little or nothing covering her backside, the shape of her butt stands out loud and clear. This is what tight clothing necessarily does; it displays the curvature of the body precisely – legs, butt and breasts alike. (Indeed, the difference between being clothed in this fashion and being stark naked can sometimes be one only of color.) The author ought to have given some space to explaining just why it is problematic for a woman to dress like this around campus, but perhaps she assumed that her audience would implicitly understand.

She had in mind, I think, the wisdom of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, helpfully cited by one of the online commenters:

“2521. Purity requires modesty, an integral part of temperance. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.

“2522. Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet.”

Are spandex leg sleeves discreet? Do short shorts refuse to unveil what should remain hidden? Do these types of clothing help a man to look at a woman in conformity with her dignity as a person? To ask these questions is to answer them.

Photo courtesy of thefamouspeople.comAnna Kaladish is not the Ayatollah Khomeini (though they might share a similar taste in wallpaper).
Photo courtesy of thefamouspeople.com
Anna Kaladish is not the Ayatollah Khomeini (though they might share a similar taste in wallpaper).

So I think, anyway. At the very least, it has to be agreed that it was not wickedly judgmental of Miss Kaladish to draw lines that exclude certain sorts of clothing from polite company. For one thing, making a judgment is not the same as being “judgmental.” As a student noted online, “Jesus … flipped tables in the temple and gave us ‘admonish the sinner’ as one of the spiritual works of mercy.” To deny someone the right to criticize – in a humorous fashion! – behavior she believes to be immodest is verily to deny her the right to live out her Christian faith. Moreover, it is to deny a culture its right to preserve its own identity. For as another of the best online commenters put it, “[This] is what cultures do. They rule things in, and they rule things out.”

Most everything dishonest and vapid about the response to Miss Kaladish’s article can be found in last week’s letter to the editor, which, as they say, was clever but not wise. Having no insight to contribute to the discussion, our letter writers chose instead, mockingly and sneeringly, to slay the straw-women of their own minds. Yes, these writers stand athwart the evil, MRS-degree-seeking long-skirts who probably don’t want women to leave the kitchen. Thank goodness for these heroic defenders of Progress.

Our letter writers, alas, cannot read quite well enough to understand what Miss Kaladish meant when she wrote, “I do not own a single long skirt”; but at least, unlike others of the writer’s critics, they didn’t suggest that she was afraid to be seen in any clothing not long and flowing – a dirty claim, to be sure, but also rather a foolish one, for anyone who has ever seen the author.

What we’ve learned from the 108-comment-long online debate spurred by the article is that the cultural revolution has succeeded so completely that to criticize short shirts and the wearing of leggings as pants is to earn the ire of a substantial part of a conservative, Catholic student body. Do this, and people who have never spoken to you will imply that you’re paving your own path to Hell, modestly clad though you be. People who take your jokes hyper-literally will ignore entirely your serious remarks. Perhaps worst of all, people who know nothing of your background will condescendingly tell you how hard a time you’re going to have of it in the “real world,” assuming, I guess, that your parents had the darndest time trying to choose between Seton or the Angelicum for your high-school homeschool curriculum, before they ultimately decided instead to relocate to Massachusetts so that you could attend the Trivium School. (Hint hint, this is not Miss Kaladish’s story. Not in the least.)

If we are going to call ourselves “independent thinkers,” then we have got to be able to let a girl write an article without freaking out at her, without feeling the need to insult, defame and demonstrate. Education (especially liberal education) is supposed to free us from our passions, as Clarence Thomas said in his convocation address at Hillsdale College in 1994: “It can take us beyond the emotional confines of our passions, beyond the security of our preferences and to the boundless vistas of intellectual growth that only come from the calm, patient inquiry of our rational capacities – to think rather than just feel, to act methodically rather than react predictably.”

The next time someone at the newspaper writes something you don’t like, don’t be “offended.” Go find him or her, sit down in the Cap Bar, and have a discussion. Whether minds are changed or not, hearts will glow, love and reason will win, and the devil of fury will be kept in check.

6 COMMENTS

  1. What is indeed embarrassing Mr. Orazio, is your veiled effort to castigate the people who wrote and participated in that vibrant debate, about a subject that, without doubt touched a raw nerve. Your efforts to channel the contributors’ reactions to the debate to fit your own worldview is both patronizing and contrary to the mantra of “independent thought”. Quit insinuating that an open debate must meet your ‘conservative’ orthodoxy and tacit approval for it to be acceptable in UD or anywhere in the world for that matter,in an effort to ‘defend’ its author.The article in question infact, kindled the kind of vibrancy we need in this school; promotion of true independent thinking ,unbounded to reflect exactly our diversity of mind, heritage and even nationality. For the brave lady who penned that article, kudos and continue writing and expressing your views. For anyone who expressed themselves in reaction to the article;am glad that you did, unbounded and true to how you ‘thought rather than just felt and acted methodically rather than reacting predictably’. By freely and openly debating the article, the devil of hypocritical silence, pretence and dishonesty as far as the reality and intentions of our accepted social culture is concerned, was kept in check.

    • St. Ignatius, I appreciate your response.

      You write, “For anyone who expressed themselves in reaction to the article, I am glad that you did, unbounded and true to how you ‘thought rather than just felt and acted methodically rather than reacting predictably’.”

      Do you recognize no legitimate ‘bounds’ when responding to a newspaper article? Are there not matters that we should not broach without great caution, such as speculation about the eternal fate of a writer, and about her self-esteem regarding how she’d look in short shorts?

      It’s neat that you give kudos both to Miss Kaladish for what she wrote and to all of her detractors without exception, for they were often not so generous with her, both online and in print. Isn’t it possible, St. Ignatius, that either she or they went about this debate improperly, and hence deserve(s) the rebuke sent her/their way?

      Thanks for reading.

      All best,
      Daniel Orazio

  2. This article was good. At times excellent. A particularly honest moment was Mr. Orazio’s candid acknowledgement that without knowing Miss Kaladish personally (i.e. invincible ignorance of her idiosyncrasies), her brand of humor can come across as “haughty.” That absolves of wrongdoing a good percentage of the 108+ comments that critiqued the article on this very point (does not absolve the ad hominem assaults). For those who WERE able to discern humorous intent and yet criticized her critique anyway, Mr. Orazio’s admission highlights another point: the power of humor as a debater’s tool. If you shroud a serious point under the veil of humor, you can accuse your opponents of being humorless if they ignore the joke and assault the core argument. This is an unfair, albeit sometimes effective, rhetorical move. If Miss Kaladish thinks UD has a modesty problem, she should come out and say it without rhetorical flourishes, so that those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her (and apparently lack a sense of humor) need not rely on an esoteric reading (e.g. Strauss) or a Virgilian guide (e.g. Mr. Orazio) to grasp her argument.

    • John, I appreciate both the kind words and the critique.

      I’m wondering, do you really think the article in question was so obscure that it required a Strauss or a Vergil to guide you through it? I know that Dante needed Vergil and Beatrice to, as it were, explain the ways of God to man, but I think the humor in suggesting that ‘our senior class gift should be a stand on the Mall with all shapes and varieties of long skirts to be doled out to needy passersby’ is rather more transparent.

      Even if you don’t find that rhetorical question funny, (and I’d have no beef with you for that,) how could you take it seriously, especially in light of the reasonably serious final few paragraphs, in which the writer informs us that she doesn’t own any long skirts? As I wrote, I’m not upset with anyone for misreading the piece as all stern and grave, but I don’t think such a reading is the best one; and I tried to show why in my piece.

      Also, I think you can locate in sentences such as,

      ‘Therefore, “long skirt” signifies more than a daily clothing choice; it is a frame of mind that values modesty for the sake of holiness.

      ‘You can be a long skirt, and you should encourage all the women in your life to adopt the modesty and prudence of long skirtness for the sake of their beauty and the benefit of everyone who has to look at them. Modesty does not always entail long, flowing garments, but it is perennially amenable to good taste and high class.”,

      the sort of flourish-less expression of clear opinion that you were looking for in Miss Kaladish’s piece.

      Cheers,
      Daniel Orazio

  3. You say the original article contains ‘obvious humor’. So I don’t find it a stretch to say you are calling those critics who participated in the comment thread either humorless or stupid.

    This article (this one, not Ms. Kaladish’) is really a sad moment for UD and for the UD newspaper. To feel the need to post a front page rebuttal to a agroup of online commenters is seemingly an implicit acknowledgement that the supposed humor of the original article wasn’t humorous at all. The exception being to those knowing the original article’s author firsthand. So maybe the original article is just an inside joke that deserves the criticism it received.

    Put simply, Mr. Orazio, my recommendation is this. Don’t take so personally the response the article received. Instead you should be happy with the discussion it sparked. You should have partaken in the discussion, and Ms. Kaladish as well. Take an example from any decent blog and see that the best authors address their subscribers personally, with well-formed responses. They don’t castigate the entirety of their reader base with a fell swoop. You can keep writing responses like this one, but I assure you you will lose your online readers with a quickness. Embrace the criticism, or you’re really going to dislike your life as a writer.

    • Dan, thanks for the comment. I don’t agree much with your analysis, but it certainly merits a well-formed response (as indeed I’ve seen good bloggers do, from Peter Hitchens on politics to Joe Posnanski on sports).

      For one thing, my article was not a front-page rebuttal. The piece ran partly on page six and partly on page seven of an eight-page newspaper. (I think the reason that the article appeared as the lead article on the home page of the website is because it was the most-viewed article of its issue. I think that’s how that works — that’s how it seemed to work with Anna Kaladish’s piece, at least — but I’m not sure.)

      Now, I don’t think that everyone who participated in the comments thread was either humorless or stupid; please forgive me if that was the implication of what I wrote. For one thing, the debate between “Maximus” and “William” was first rate, one of the best I’ve ever come across on a blog. This is why we excerpted the first two sallies of it in our distillation of the online debate, which appeared in the issue before the one in which my article appeared and which featured comments in praise of and in critique of Miss Kaladish’s piece. Indeed, I valued some of what Miss Kaladish’s detractors wrote.

      There were in my opinion, though, many less-than-stellar responses, and, I think, too many rather thin-skinned ones, and to my mind these made up far too much of the debate, both online and on campus.

      Really, Dan, couldn’t the quality of the debate have been higher? UD is a tiny school: just about anyone could have found out, without too much effort, who Anna Kaladish was, and gone up to talk to her in person; there was really no need of testy internet comments. (Do we even need an online comment section? A writer for our paper is not as unreachable as Paul Krugman or George Will! Of course, though, I know our alumni community cannot respond in person.)

      Yet only one person did this — came up to talk to Miss Kaladish, that is — and this girl was (so I am told) shaking with confused anger over the author’s audacity, and has looked upset at Miss Kaladish every time she’s seen her since.

      Furthermore, cars were decorated and leggings worn for days after the piece in protest; that’s fun, but not very productive in itself, it seems to me, of a thoughtful debate. I wish these folks had tracked down the writer, or written cogent letters to the editor, or quietly but definitively dismantled the anti-leggings argument on the internet (using their full, real name, just as writers for the UD News publish under their full, real names).

      As I wrote in my article, aren’t we a school of ‘independent thinkers’, who can stomach a person publishing an article with which we disagree without feeling the need to publicly demonstrate (while failing actually to rationally rebut)? I felt moved to write the piece that I did because I truly felt a great sense of dismay that this is what four years of expensive, ‘classical’ education had come to for so many people at UD: reflexive vitriol and shallow analysis. I may be wrong in my judgment of the debate, but I was only calling it as I saw it.

      To another of your points, I do think that there was obvious humor in the piece, (I don’t think, pace ‘John’, that it takes a Vergilian guide or a Straussian reading to see that,) but I would not want to call anyone ‘humorless’ simply for (in my opinion!) misreading an article. That’s why I said specifically that I couldn’t get upset at anyone who read the article as, well, humorless. Still, I don’t find such a reading very reasonable at all, and I tried to show why in my piece. (Come on, who in 21st-century America uses ‘amongst’ with total seriousness? And that was in the very *title* of the piece!)

      Now, Dan, I can assure you that I enjoy being attacked (in person more than over the faceless, often nameless internet; I was attacked just tonight in the newsroom for my use of hyphens), but I don’t especially care for it when my writers are damned to Hell, or when an ‘I-do-what-I-want-with-my-body’ attitude seems to reign supreme, or when letters-to-the-editor distort and then mock a perfectly respectable opinion. I think the people behind such damning and distorting should be called out, and those behind such a pernicious attitude rebuked.

      But of course, the girls who wrote that letter that raised my ire are welcome to write another letter, disputing my characterization of their characterization. The Managing Editor, always giddy for controversy (and readership!), would be glad to run it.

      I take your last point, Dan, and it’s a good one: one has to embrace criticism to enjoy being a writer. Maybe my reflection on the modesty embroglio was (as Miss Kaladish herself said to one of our common friends!) ‘a little over the top’. Still, I meant what I said at the end of my piece, which is that readers of the UD News should find authors they disagree with, sit down, and have a conversation. I’d be happy to do that with you in person, if you’re present here on campus.

      Best,
      Daniel Orazio

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